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Monthly Archives: November 2013

Expansion of Christian Spain in the Thirteenth Century

Interesting map showing the expansion of the Christian kingdoms (Castile, Portugal, Aragon) in the early thirteenth century following the defeat of the Almohads and Andalusi Muslims at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa (1212)


Poem by al-Farazdaq (d. 730) about Zayn al-Abideen Ali ibn al-Husayn (d. 712)

Imam Zayn al-Abidin (A.S.) went to the Mecca to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. Meanwhile Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik (the crown-prince of the Umayyad dynasty at the time) went there for the same purpose. Hisham tried his best to reach the Kaaba but he was unable to do that, for the people were overcrowded around it. Every time he would try pushing and forcing his way through – he would be pushed back by the crowd circulating around the Kaaba. He decided to give up and wait till the crowd became less so would be able to go through with ease. A pulpit was installed and he sat on it. He began looking at the crowds of the people from above. Then Imam Zayn al-Abidin (A.S.) came to perform his circulation of the Kaaba. When the pilgrims saw him, they were astonished at his humble solemnity and the glow of piety on his face, the face was similar to that of his grandfather,Prophet Muhammad, may God bless him and his family.

The people were shouting: “There is no god but God! God is great!” – With great respect – they parted, made way for him and allowed him to pass through to kiss the Kaaba. The Syrians were astonished when they saw that situation. The pilgrims saw the people did not receive Hisham, the nominated caliph after his father, warmly though the Syrians honored him and the Caliph’s guards surrounded him.

One of Hisham’s companions from Syria asked him: “Who is that man whom the people have honored very much?” Hisham was hurt and pretended not to know the Imam and angrily, shouted at the man, saying: “I do not know him!

The great Arab poet Al-Farazdaq was there. He knew that Hisham was lying. He could not control himself at this insult to the great Imam. Thus, he said to the Syrians: “I know him.” “Who is he, Abu Firas?” The Syrians asked. Hisham shouted at al-Farazdaq, “I do not know him!” “Yes, you know him.” replied al-Farazdaq. Then he rose and composed the following poem whose effect was stronger than the hitting of the swords and the stabbing of the spears against Hisham.

He said (translation of the poem):

This is the son of Husayn and the grandson of Fatima the daughter of the Apostle through whom the darkness dispersed.

This is he whose ability the valley (of Mecca) recognizes, He is known by the (Sacred) House and the Holy sanctuary and the lands outside the sanctuary.

This is the son of the best of God”s servants.

This is the pure pious man, the pure eminent man. When the Quraysh saw him, their spokesman said: Liberality terminates at the outstanding qualities of this (man).

He belongs to the top of glory which the Arabs of Islam and non-Arabs fall short of reaching.

When he comes to touch the wall of the Kaaba, it almost grasps the palm of his hand.

He takes care to be modest and he is protected from his fears.

He only speaks when he smiles.

There is a cane in his hand. Its smell is fragrant from the hand of the most wonderful (of all the people), who is proud.

The prophets yielded to his grandfather’s favor.

The nations yielded to the favor of his community.

The light of guidance emanates from the light of his forehead.

He is like the sun whose shining disperses darkness.

His family tree belongs to the Apostle of God.

Its elements, its natures, and its qualities are good.

This is the son of Fatima if you do not recognize him.

His grandfather was the seal of Prophethood.

God honored and favored him from antiquity.

Your words ‘ who is this?’ do not harm him.

All the Arabs and non-Arabs recognize him whom you deny.

Both his hands are relief.

Their advantage has prevailed.

The hands are just.

Nonexistence does not befall them.

He is the carrier of the burdens of the people when they are oppressed.

His qualities are good.

The ‘ yes’ is sweet with him.

He does not break a promise.

His soul is blessed.

His courtyard is wide.

He is intelligent when he decides.

He is from the people whose love is religion, whose hate is unbelief, whose approach is refuge and protection.

If the God-fearing are numbered, they are their Imams.

If it is said who are the best of the earth, it is said they are.

No generous man can reach their far purpose.

No people, though generous, can compete with them (for generosity).

They are rain when a crisis happens.

They are lions when fear becomes intense.

Poverty does not decrease the relief from their hands.

That is the same, whether they are rich or poor.

Misfortune and tribulation are driven away through their love.

Kindness and the blessings are regained through it.

In every affair their praise is after the praise of God.

The speech is ended by it.

Abasement refuses to stop at their space.

Their natures are noble, and their hands are full of liberality.

None of mankind has within their souls such primacy as he does or such grace as he does.

Whoever knows God, knows His friend. Our Religion came from the House of this man.

Hisham was so furious at al-Farazdaq after hearing this poem, he ordered that he should be imprisoned in Asfan, located between Mecca and Medina. In prison, he continued to write poetry in favor of the Ahl al-Bayt. Imam Zayn al-Abidin sent some money to al-Farazdaq, since he was in the prison and had no means of earning his livelihood. Al-Farazdaq didn’t accept it and said that he had recited the poem only to please God. The Imam insisted and sent him the money saying: “God Almighty is well aware of your intention, and will reward you appropriately. If you accept this money, it shall not reduce your reward from God.” And he urged al-Farazdaq to accept the gift and finally al-Farazdaq accepted it.

هَذا الّذي تَعرِفُ البَطْحاءُ وَطْأتَهُ،          وَالبَيْتُ يعْرِفُهُ وَالحِلُّ وَالحَرَمُ
هذا ابنُ خَيرِ عِبادِ الله كُلّهِمُ،           هذا التّقيّ النّقيّ الطّاهِرُ العَلَمُ
هذا ابنُ فاطمَةٍ، إنْ كُنْتَ جاهِلَهُ،                 بِجَدّهِ أنْبِيَاءُ الله قَدْ خُتِمُوا
وَلَيْسَ قَوْلُكَ: مَن هذا؟ بضَائرِه،     العُرْبُ تَعرِفُ من أنكَرْتَ وَالعَجمُ
كِلْتا يَدَيْهِ غِيَاثٌ عَمَّ نَفعُهُمَا،          يُسْتَوْكَفانِ، وَلا يَعرُوهُما عَدَمُ
سَهْلُ الخَلِيقَةِ، لا تُخشى بَوَادِرُهُ،      يَزِينُهُ اثنانِ: حُسنُ الخَلقِ وَالشّيمُ
حَمّالُ أثقالِ أقوَامٍ، إذا افتُدِحُوا،          حُلوُ الشّمائلِ، تَحلُو عندَهُ نَعَمُ
ما قال: لا قطُّ، إلاّ في تَشَهُّدِهِ،            لَوْلا التّشَهّدُ كانَتْ لاءَهُ نَعَمُ
عَمَّ البَرِيّةَ بالإحسانِ، فانْقَشَعَتْ       عَنْها الغَياهِبُ والإمْلاقُ والعَدَمُ
إذ رَأتْهُ قُرَيْشٌ قال قائِلُها:           إلى مَكَارِمِ هذا يَنْتَهِي الكَرَمُ
يُغْضِي حَياءً، وَيُغضَى من مَهابَتِه،                 فَمَا يُكَلَّمُ إلاّ حِينَ يَبْتَسِمُ
بِكَفّهِ خَيْزُرَانٌ رِيحُهُ عَبِقٌ،     من كَفّ أرْوَعَ، في عِرْنِينِهِ شمَمُ
يَكادُ يُمْسِكُهُ عِرْفانَ رَاحَتِهِ،        رُكْنُ الحَطِيمِ إذا ما جَاءَ يَستَلِمُ
الله شَرّفَهُ قِدْماً، وَعَظّمَهُ،         جَرَى بِذاكَ لَهُ في لَوْحِهِ القَلَمُ
أيُّ الخَلائِقِ لَيْسَتْ في رِقَابِهِمُ،                  لأوّلِيّةِ هَذا، أوْ لَهُ نِعمُ
مَن يَشكُرِ الله يَشكُرْ أوّلِيّةَ ذا؛        فالدِّينُ مِن بَيتِ هذا نَالَهُ الأُمَمُ
يُنمى إلى ذُرْوَةِ الدّينِ التي قَصُرَت    عَنها الأكفُّ، وعن إدراكِها القَدَمُ
مَنْ جَدُّهُ دان فَضْلُ الأنْبِياءِ لَهُ؛           وَفَضْلُ أُمّتِهِ دانَتْ لَهُ الأُمَمُ
مُشْتَقّةٌ مِنْ رَسُولِ الله نَبْعَتُهُ،      طَابَتْ مَغارِسُهُ والخِيمُ وَالشّيَمُ
يَنْشَقّ ثَوْبُ الدّجَى عن نورِ غرّتِهِ     كالشمس تَنجابُ عن إشرَاقِها الظُّلَمُ
من مَعشَرٍ حُبُّهُمْ دِينٌ، وَبُغْضُهُمُ       كُفْرٌ، وَقُرْبُهُمُ مَنجىً وَمُعتَصَمُ
مُقَدَّمٌ بعد ذِكْرِ الله ذِكْرُهُمُ،      في كلّ بَدْءٍ، وَمَختومٌ به الكَلِمُ
إنْ عُدّ أهْلُ التّقَى كانوا أئِمّتَهمْ،     أوْ قيل: «من خيرُ أهل الأرْض؟» قيل: هم
لا يَستَطيعُ جَوَادٌ بَعدَ جُودِهِمُ،        وَلا يُدانِيهِمُ قَوْمٌ، وَإنْ كَرُمُوا
هُمُ الغُيُوثُ، إذا ما أزْمَةٌ أزَمَتْ،     وَالأُسدُ أُسدُ الشّرَى، وَالبأسُ محتدمُ
لا يُنقِصُ العُسرُ بَسطاً من أكُفّهِمُ؛    سِيّانِ ذلك: إن أثَرَوْا وَإنْ عَدِمُوا
يُستدْفَعُ الشرُّ وَالبَلْوَى بحُبّهِمُ،        وَيُسْتَرَبّ بِهِ الإحْسَانُ وَالنِّعَمُ

(Source: Ali Hujwiri (d. 1077), Kashf al-Mahjub)



Trans-Saharan Slave Trade and Racism in the Arab World

It is deeply problematic that the trans-Saharan slave trade–which both pre-dates and post-dates the trans-Atlantic slave trade and destroyed at least twice as many lives as the latter (many scholars estimate that close to 18 million people were enslaved between 800 and 1900)–receives such little attention when we teach history in the 21st century, especially within an Arab-Muslim context. This slave-trade was no less brutal than its trans-Atlantic counterpart, with millions of people being captured, bought, sold, and forcibly dislocated from their homeland to serve the elites throughout the Middle East and North Africa in various domestic, military, and sexual capacities. Unlike other slave trades in Islamic contexts, this was a slave trade accompanied by an entire culture that accepted it and an ideology that condoned it. Perhaps if this horrific historical reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade was more emphasized, the use of terms such as “abd” (“slave”) by many Arabs to refer to people of African origin would be less acceptable. Indeed, in modern Arabic parlance the word for slave and the word for black person have become almost interchangeable with many people not even pausing to consider the derogatory and oppressive connotations of the terminology they are using to designate their fellow human beings. A strong awareness of the history and legacy of the trans-Saharan slave trade would go a long way towards sensitizing people to the problematic use of language. Educating people about this slave trade would also alert people to the fact that it was not just Euro-American civilization that was guilty of the worst abuses of colonialism and genocide in the past several centuries. It is also just as important to be conscious of major differences and nuances of the trans-Saharan slave trade and its legacies from its trans-Atlantic counterpart as we seek to deconstruct the manifestations of racism and its structures in Arab-Islamic societies.


It is largely unacknowledged that the structures of racism, slavery and oppression existed and flourished just as well in the Arab-Islamic world as they did in Europe and the Americas. The culture of Arab supremacy and the legitimacy of enslaving Africans was so entrenched by the fourteenth century that the great North African polymath and sociologist, Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) could assert without fear of controversy that “the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated” (Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah). This level of dehumanization was not uncommon in medieval Arab culture (despite the clearly egalitarian teachings of Islam which explicitly condemns racism). In many ways, the legacy of the trans-Saharan slave trade (which had various economic and political contexts) and the culture of racism has persisted into the modern period with negative stereotypes of dark-skinned people, the stigmatization of “black” features, and the derogatory references to Africans in general throughout the Arab world. This is to say nothing of the vestiges of the institution of slavery, which can still be seen from Mauritania ( to Qatar (, in which thousands, if not millions of people are forced to serve under a system which is unjust and dehumanizing.

As it stands, the vast majority of Arabs (both those who also identify as “black” and those who consider themselves “white”) are ignorant of the reality of the trans-Saharan slave trade, a fact which makes them oblivious to the modern-day consequences of slavery and the structures of racism. This ignorance, which allows many Arabic-speaking youths (from the Middle East to North America) to use with impunity such vile terms as ‘abd to refer to anyone of African descent, underscores the urgency of educating ourselves and others on the topic.

In the case in North America, where the majority of Arabs form part of the middle and upper-class and are detached from the struggles and realities of their  fellow Afro-American citizens, the issue is complicated by the existence of an additional layer of legacies of race and slavery. This is not the place to discuss the ways in which a certain privileged position of the Arab community manifests itself, but it is important to remember that discourses of racism are inextricably linked with realities of power. Although many Arabs have often found themselves on the receiving end of racism and marginalization from the dominant community in the US, they have nevertheless played a role in perpetuating a culture of racism and reinforcing the structural inequality that has characterized the country.

It is thus both an ignorance of their community’s historic role in the trans-Saharan slave trade as well as their belonging to a privileged socio-economic class of citizens in the US that allows many Arab-Americans to utilize racist terminology while remaining entirely ignorant of the implications. Worse, in some cases there is an acute awareness of the implications but such bigotry and racism is perpetuated regardless. It is fundamental that an understanding of anti-black racism in the Arab community should not be limited to inter-personal interactions or even communal relations, but should be centered around the discussion of structures of racism, most of which do have their origins in the colonial period. Just as important is understanding the nuanced manner in which these structures and discourses of racism manifest themselves in an Arab-Muslim context. I leave that discussion to individuals who are far more competent to address it than myself. It is simply my contention in this piece that breaking the barrier of ignorance and denial about the issue in the Arab community would be the first step to addressing the broader problem of racism. It is furthermore important to contextualize the discussion of anti-Black racism within the broader category of racism in general in Arab communities, which also targets other groups such as South Asians, Persians, Kurds,  East Asians and Jews. Again, here it is essential to be aware of the various social, historical, and cultural contexts rather than essentializing. The Arab-Muslim world consists of over 350 million people. Clearly, therefore, structures of racism and discrimination take different shapes and forms in different Arab-Muslim societies.

Although it is important to be aware that slavery and its legacies has taken a different form in the Arab-Muslim world  than in the Atlantic, it is equally important to be aware that in essence it also exhibited many similarities, with mass violence and structural oppression characterizing the phenomenon in both cases. There was a reason that it was banned in the nineteenth-century by the consensus of Muslim jurists, as it was seen as fundamentally incompatible with the egalitarian values of Islam. Unfortunately, however, although the institution of slavery was officially abolished, many of the attitudes and culture which accompanied it were not. It is crucial that we engage seriously with the issues of racism and structural inequality as they manifest in the Arab community today. Beginning with a serious engagement of the trans-Saharan slave trade would perhaps be a prudent place to begin. This piece was not intended to be a grand theoretical exposition of a very complex issue nor a detailed outline of the history. Rather, it was a preliminary attempt to explore some of the ways in which the legacies (and the ignorance of these legacies) of a terrible historical process–the trans-Saharan slave trade–has manifested itself in Arab consciousness. The following article, which does a much better job than I in highlighting the fundamental issues at stake in this discussion, may be a useful starting point:

Some articles on various communities of African descent in the Muslim world:




Afro-Iranians: and

For those wishing to educate themselves further on the nature and extent of slavery in the medieval and early modern Arab-Islamic world, see the following:

Frederic Cooper. Plantation Slavery on the East Coast of Africa. 1997

Robert C. Davis. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800. 2004.

Chouki El-Hamel. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race and Islam. 2012. I recommend this book very highly, since the author has done meticulous research and does a great job deconstructing the various categories and concepts that he engages with.

Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery in the History of Black Muslim Africa. 2001.

Allan G.B. Fisher. Slavery and Muslim Society in Africa. 1970.

William Gervase Clarence-Smith. Islam and the Abolition of Slavery. 2006.

David Goldenberg. The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Princeton, 2005

Murray Gordon. Slavery in the Arab World. 1998.

John Hunwick. The African Diaspora in the Mediterranean Lands of Islam. Princeton, 2002.

Paul E. Lovejoy. Slavery on the Frontiers of Islam. 2004.

Behnaz Mirzai. Slavery, Islam and Diaspora. 2009.

Alexandra Popovic. The Revolt of African Slaves in Iraq in the 3rd/9th Century. 1998.

Ehud Toledano. As if Silent and Absent: Bonds of Enslavement in the Islamic Middle East. 2007.

Ehud Toledano. Slavery and Abolition in the Ottoman Middle East. 1997.

Ronald Segal. Islam’s Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora. 2002.

Terence Walz. Race and Slavery in the Middle East: Histories of Trans-Saharan Africans in Nineteenth-Century Egypt, Sudan and the Ottoman Mediterranean. 2011.

John Wright. The Trans-Saharan Slave Trade. 2007.


Cantiga 181 from the Cantigas de Santa Maria

Cantiga 181, Codex Rico, Ms TI1. Biblioteca de El Escorial

The Moroccan army of king Umar al-Murtada routs a rival army of Moroccans under Abū Yūsuf, emir of Benimerines, at Marrakech.

The King of Marrakech was at war with another king.
The other king had crossed the Morabe River with a huge army and had laid siege to the city.
The king of Marrakech was advised to go out from the city with his best warriors to do battle. He was to take the banner of Holy Mary and to be accompanied by Christians carrying crosses.
The King followed this advice, and when the banner of Holy Mary was unfurled, the army of the other king was defeated. Many of his men were killed and they lost their tents and possessions.
Others, seeing the banner and crosses, fled in great haste.
In this way, the Virgin helped her friends, even though they were of another faith.


Famous Historical Muslims of African/Black Origin

Islamic civilization currently encompasses every culture, ethnicity, race, and language on the planet. The pages of Islamic history are filled with the emergence of many different ethno-linguistic groups, from regions as far apart as West Africa and Central Asia, as important political and cultural forces, which greatly impacted the direction of Islamic civilization. Unfortunately, despite this reality, Muslim history has often been presented as a series of accomplishments revolving around Arabs, Persians, and Turks, to the exclusion of all other groups. The rich histories of hundreds of Muslim ethnic, racial, and linguistic groups have too often been overlooked or overshadowed by this mistaken approach towards Muslim history and expropriated by the master narrative which seeks to identify Muslim history with a very specific cultural and geographic context.  (more…)

Islamic World (ca. 945)


Martyrdom of al-Husayn ibn Ali (d.680) in Arabic Historical Chronicles (700-1500 A.D.)

Some useful Arabic chronicles to consult for details about the massacre at Karbala (680 A.D.):

Abu Mikhnaf, Maqtal al-Ḥusayn (preserved in al-Ṭabarī)

–Written ca. 740; proto-Shi’ite perspective

Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad ibn Jarīr al-Tabari, Tārīkh al-Rusul wal Mulūk

–Written ca. 900; various perspectives

Aḥmad ibn Yaḥya al-Balādhurī, Ansāb al-Ashrāf

–Written ca. 880-890; Sunni perspective